S2 – Blog 02: Sundown Towns: Why Studying Sundown Towns Matters

As mentioned in our podcast interview, Dr. James Loewen didn’t just write a book about  sundown towns, he wrote THE book.  He did a lot of research in small towns–especially in Illinois–which has enabled us to learn a lot about our own communities. (By the way, if you haven’t already, Loewen has a massive database on his website you should check out by following this link – Loewen’s website – Sundown Towns Database). But of all the questions we’ve asked, one stands out as most important; why does all this matter?  As we lean into this question, three overall themes come to mind that address why this research matters.

(1)It’s essential to never stop rethinking and unlearning what we may or may not know about our past.  

Researching local history and asking difficult questions isn’t easy, but it matters.  While undergoing this process will undoubtedly be difficult, the likeliness of violence and oppression–those things we tell ourselves we’ve moved on from–merely increase if we are unable to ask difficult questions. We’ve unfortunately learned from national tragedies in Charlottesville, Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina that acts of racial hate are typically harbored in people and places that are socially insulated.  Local history  museums, while well-intentioned, often seek only to celebrate their past in order to promote their future.  A necessary action to strengthen communities, however, is to question your history so you may be better equipped to deal with the present. That’s the whole beauty of the subject of history anyway, and why we refer to it as something we PRACTICE.   

And besides, another reason to ask difficult questions about your local history is because young people are already asking these questions.  Those same young people that are leaving small communities in abundance, won’t engage with a local history that is  romanticized by a hyper-nostalgic view of the past.  Perhaps a major contributing factor for this exodus isn’t the lack of economic opportunities (as is so often perceived), but the lack of social progress that comes when we fail to willingly embrace critical inquiry.  Finally, let’s not make the mistake that young people are lost in devices and disengaged from these affairs.  Several examples come to mind that demonstrate that even amidst limitless digital distractions, youth are empowered and prepared to shape current social-political climates more than ever (whether this youth activism is more or less lively in rural America deserves further inquiry). 

With this in mind, it’s crucial for our rural communities to ponder the following question – How can our small towns embrace a new future if they are unwilling to embrace their complicated past?

NOTE: We endeavored to begin this process asking if our own community in Cuba, IL was a sundown town. We share our journey in the upcoming blog post: Season 2 – Blog 03: Sundown Towns: What We Learned from Our Town’s Beautiful and Complicated History.

(2)Segregation still exists today.  

A second reason that demonstrates why a study of sundown towns is important is because it speaks to the alarmingly high rates of segregated neighborhoods, schools and churches we still see today; especially in rural America.  In some places, segregation is higher than it was during the civil rights era.  As we ponder our current social climate, a study of sundown towns should at the very least put a rest to the notion that rural America has somehow stumbled its way into a racial-utopia.  

(3)We still have a lot to learn about diversity.  

Many of us were taught that the events of the Little Rock 9 had a happy ending.  The students graduated, desegregation was enforced, and racial harmony was promoted.  But to the Little Rock 9 and their peers, to the children of the Little Rock 9 and their children as well, that’s not how the story played out.  The story was also never cozy and easily understood as the textbooks made it seem.  Their story continues and it remains set in a community that is still trying to figure out what healing and harmony should be.

Former Forgottonian and Western Illinois University history professor Barclay Key was recently featured on the documentary “Teach Us All.”  This film examines Little Rock Public High School 60 years removed from the events of the Little Rock 9.  Dr. Key, now a history professor at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, became an active participant in this story as he helps shape a community finding a way forward from a complicated past. In the film, Dr. Key states plainly “that our biggest problem regarding race is we still don’t really know each other.”

Simple yet truthful.  What if our biggest problem about race is that we still really don’t know each other? As we contemplate ways forward in our own communities, perhaps our efforts will promote manners in which we can better know one another.  It’s only being honest to say that much of rural America has its work cut out for us.  Since public schools are less likely to be diverse, opportunities to get to know one another are minimal at best.  What’s further troubling is that lessons we do learn about race are often left to the guidance of Hollywood or mass media.

We definitely have not discovered all the answers to these problems, but to help with a way forward check out our link to season 1 Conversations on Race and Rural America Part 1 and Conversations on Race and Rural America Part 2 with Dr. Alphonso Simpson.

Be sure to join us as we seek to learn all we can about this topic. Subscribe to our blog and get all new content sent directly to your inbox.  Follow us on social media (we are on Twitter and Facebook) and search iTunes or wherever you find podcasts to subscribe to our Forgottonia Project podcast.

Additional links to our research over Sundown Towns:

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